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Is Our Witness an Extension of Our Worship?


One of the tragic patterns that has taken place at various points throughout human history is when the oppressed become the oppressors. When those who had been victims of injustice become responsible for injustice. When those who had once been oppressed somehow find themselves with power and influence and freedom and become the oppressors themselves.

In some instances, this is the American story, as men and women from Europe fled their homeland, many seeking to escape religious persecution, only to then cross the Atlantic and displace their Native American brothers and sisters and enslave their African-American ones too.

And even more tragically, this very pattern is part of the biblical story as well, as the very people of God, the nation of Israel, once the oppressed, became the oppressors themselves.

This morning we continue along in our sermon series on Justice, following the overarching biblical storyline as we do. And so, we first started by looking at the Creation account itself and how human beings were made in the image of God serves as the foundation and motivation for working towards justice today. And then last week, we reflected on how God called and set apart as the nation of Israel to be his chosen people, imploring them to love and serve – the widow and orphan, poor and immigrant. It would be a primary way in which they would be carriers of justice and healers of injustice.

And yet, here in Week 3, as we jump further ahead in the biblical storyline to the Old Testament Prophets, we come across a devastating and tragic turn in biblical history, we see how the people of God, the once oppressed have now become the oppressors.

Where years before, God’s people were enslaved in the land of Egypt, an oppressed people living under the tyrannical rule of Pharaoh and the Egyptian empire. And then, God, out of his great mercy, freed them from their captivity. And after wandering through the wilderness for 40 years, he brought them to the Promised Land, where they put their roots down and became established as a nation. God blessed them to be a blessing to all the nations, to reflect and resemble God and His character in all they did.

But along the way things changed, and over time, the oppressed had become the oppressors.

Which brings us to Amos and our scripture passage today. One commentator writes, “The call for justice rings louder in Amos than in any other book.” And my goodness, friends, Amos pulls no punches. Amos saw what was happening with his own two eyes and he couldn’t help but speak up. In fact, the name Amos means “burden bearer” and God had placed on Amos’s heart a burden, this message from God, to speak out against the great injustices he saw.

And he’s here to deliver this crushing blow, saying in verse 3:

3 This is what the Sovereign Lord says to Israel: “Your city that marches out a thousand strong will have only a hundred left; your town that marches out a hundred strong will have only ten left.”

You see in a stunning turn of events God’s people, the once oppressed, now oppressors, will become oppressed once again. They’ll be sent into exile, conquered by foreign nations, in large part because they were responsible for such injustice.

Which of course raises the question, “Exactly what kind of injustice did they commit? What kind of oppression were they guilty of? And of course, what warnings do you and I urgently need to take heed of today?”

With all that said, there are three parts to today’s sermon, each one builds on the next and each problem is greater than the one before it.

First, you’ve got the really big problem of economic inequality. Second, you’ve got an even bigger problem, which is religious hypocrisy. Followed by the biggest problem of them all, what the bible refers to as The Day of the Lord.

That’s a lot, I know. And so, we’ll take it bit by bit.

First, the really big problem of economic inequality:

Take a look at verse 11. The Israelites were in a period of rare economic prosperity. They had gotten comfortable and complacent, and they had forgotten God and his laws, and who God had called them to be.

And so, Amos levies this charge against them:

11 You levy a straw tax on the poor and impose a tax on their grain. Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine.

While it’s hard to get a sense of the exact mechanics of the taxes that were levied on the poor, you can quickly connect the dots here when we see that those in power had built stone mansions and planted lush vineyards.

And not just inequality itself, but as we see through taxes levied against the poor, this is an inequality that is driven by systemic injustice.

In other words, the people of God have created and perpetuated a system where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Which then allows them to live in decadence, wealth and leisure, while the poor struggle and suffer.

Which my goodness, I probably don’t need to tell you this, is an injustice that still exists in our country and throughout our world today. And it’s an injustice that absolutely breaks God’s heart.

Yet for many of us, when we hear ideas such as economic inequality and systemic injustice, we might think to ourselves, okay, I might agree that those things really exist to some extent, and yet I put in an honest day’s work, I serve my community, I’m generous with my time and money, I love my family, how can I possibly be responsible for this one? How could I possibly be part of the problem here, and even if I was, what could I possibly do to fix it?

Well, truth is, getting to the root of an injustice like inequality is often hard to see, and yet if we dare look closely enough, we just might see it.

For example, when I started preparing for these messages a few weeks ago I came across this story that I think is wonderfully instructive and something that, as a middle class white man, I never had seen before.

I read a story about a Christian man who owns a chain of car dealerships. And as is standard practice in the industry, his salesmen were authorized to negotiate the price of the car with their customers. And over time, this man noticed a very troubling trend taking place. He did some research and uncovered the fact that, in general, men were more persistent negotiators than women, and white people pressed their interests much more so than black people. In other words, black women, who were often poorer, were paying more for cars than more prosperous owners. And so what this owner realized is that this time honored business practice in the sales world in the end took advantage of a class of people that needed help and protection.

So, what did this man do? He enacted a no-negotiation policy. The listed price was the price. Man or woman, black or white, would from then on pay the same price.

Now, consider for a moment why a change in policy like this is so crucially important. Imagine the difference it would make in your life if your monthly car payment was 10% versus let’s say 30% of your take home pay. That’s a difference you’d certainly feel.

Of course, to that you might say, well, if you can’t afford the car, don’t buy the car! Isn’t the real problem when people put themselves in debt they can’t get out of?! Isn’t that part of what exacerbates poverty in the first place? Well, yes, but what if because of astronomical rent prices where you work, you can’t afford to live where you work? What if your only means of getting to work … was by car?

I so admire what this man did. Through this change in policy, he was no longer showing favoritism to one group over another. No, everyone paid the same price.

And he wasn’t showing charity either, as good as that is. It’s not like this was an episode of Oprah, “you get a car, you get a car, you get a car.”

Rather, there is a word that wonderfully describes what this man did. He was doing … justice.

You see, the little things matter, because the little things really are the big things, and the big things matter to God.

And so, if you are a business owner or have the power or influence to make decisions like this, I want you to see that with great power comes great responsibility.

And so, consider asking yourself or the company and organization you work for …

Do your men and women get paid the same amount, for the same title and same work?

Do your employees make enough money to live where they work?

What’s the gap in salary between your lowest and highest paid employees?

And if you’re in sales, do your customers pay the same price regardless of ethnicity and gender?

And if you’re an employee, what would it look like to advocate for all of the above?

It’s by asking questions such as these that we begin to turn the tide against the great injustice that is economic inequality.

Even still, you might think to yourself, “Gosh, I’m neither a business owner or a policy maker. I’m still not sure how to be a part of the solution.”

It’s admittedly a complex conversation. And I think much of it intersects with politics and elections and taxes, but I’m going to spare myself the trouble of going down that rabbit hole.

In the end, I think in many ways the solution lies in being unbelievably and radically generous towards others, giving of your time, talents and treasures, having an open and compassionate heart towards others, especially towards those who may not have had the opportunities and education and healthy families that many of us had.

All this to say inequality is a very big problem, a great injustice, one that must be addressed, and yet, in some respects, as we’re about to see, there’s …

A Bigger Problem Still: Religious Hypocrisy

You see, this inequality is being done at the hands of God’s people, the very people who should have a heart for the poor and needy!

Picking up again in verse 21, the Lord says these piercing words:

21 “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. 22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them.

Then later saying … 23 Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps.

You can feel the language and emotion escalating here. It’s not that God is indifferent to their worship, rather he abhors it.

You can quickly see the problem here in light of the previous conversation concerning systemic injustice. And that is, what do you have when you combine incredible injustice with visible religious devotion? Well, you have nothing but the incredibly off putting stench of hypocrisy.

In other words, their witness and worship do not match up. And God will tolerate their worship no longer because their witness is corrupt.

And lest we pile on Israelites too much, we all would be wise to readily confess, we’re all hypocrites to some extent. None of us perfectly live out there everything that we pray and sing and say in here. No one is perfect and as we’ll discuss here in a minute how our only hope is in the cross of Christ.

Nevertheless, it’s worth taking a couple minutes to consider why God finds our religious hypocrisy to be so egregious.

One on hand, it exposes within us a failure to grasp God’s message of grace. A message that has failed to move from our head, to our hearts, to our hands. A failure to be truly transformed from the inside out.

In addition, sometimes our religious practice can serve as a cover up for disobedience and injustice. Regardless of what we do out there, we might think that if we do what we do in here in terms of worship, God will bless it all. Not so. Not in the least.

And yet, there’s one more reason I want you to see, and that is our hypocrisy misrepresents or mischaracterizes our God and the church to the world around us. After all, one of the implications of being made in the image of God is that you and I as his people are called to reflect and resemble our God in all we say and do.

For example, God is compassionate and generous. God has a heart for the poor and vulnerable. But you wouldn’t have known any of that by looking at the people Amos was speaking to. And when we as Christians today perpetuate inequality, when we fail to love and serve the poor, we’ll misrepresent God too.

So friends, think about your life, your example, your words, your actions, what are telling the world around us about what our God is like? What message are we communicating to the world around us?

We in fact had a very similar conversation at middle school youth group a couple weeks ago. We had heard of some general disrespect being shown by some of our students, both within youth group and at school. In many ways, typical middle school stuff, but also worth addressing and making a teachable moment out of it.

And we talked about being made in the image of God and what it looks like to treat people with the dignity and respect they deserve. And we also talked about our witness before the wider world. Students, when your classmates see you treating others like this, and you then turn around and tell them you’re catching the bus for youth group, what do you think you’re telling the world around you about what our God is like and the kind of people we as Christians are called to be?

Now, I think they got the message. And yet, let’s be honest here. It’s a message we’re all continually learning, and one we must always keep in mind.

Friends, is our witness an extension of our worship? Are our actions a reflection of our beliefs?

And as it pertains to inequality and injustice, does the world around us know the church and its people as being for the poor and vulnerable, as being generous and compassionate and sacrificial, or does it know us for something else?

That’s the even bigger problem, religious hypocrisy. And yet, we must consider …

The Biggest Problem of All: The Day of the Lord

In verses, 18 through 20, we’re introduced to this strange and mysterious and vague phrase, something called “The Day of the Lord.”

Borrowing from my friends over at the Bible Project, The Day of the Lord is a phrase used in the Bible to describe how God is at work in history to confront collective human evil and liberate his people from oppression.

It was something that for so many years, God’s people looked forward to. In the midst of being oppressed by other nations, with all those years of being pushed around as the small little nation of Israel, The Day of the Lord was something that they hoped and longed for. A day when God would confront human evil and liberate his people from oppression.

And yet, what happens when the oppressed become the oppressors? No longer should it be a day that people welcome, but rather one that people dread. This in fact, is exactly what God is getting at in verse 18,

Why do you long for the day of the Lord? That day will be darkness, not light.

So long as they continue in their injustice and oppression of others, God won’t be coming to save them, but rather to confront them.

In light of this coming day, I think our only hope is this: We must remember Who’s we are, where we’ve come from, and what God has done for us through his love and mercy and grace.

Tragically, the Israelites forgot where they came from and what God had done for them. They forgot about the day when God saved them.

And we too, in a similar, yet different way, must remember a day in human history when God saved us.

Here’s what I mean:

Friends, can you think back to a day when an innocent person was declared guilty?

Can you think back to a day when a poor man was convicted by the wealthy establishment of a crime he never committed?

Can you think back to a day when a man was oppressed by his oppressors?

Can you think back to a day when darkness fell upon the earth in the middle of the day?

Can you think back to a day where God’s love was displayed and his justice satisfied?

I know you can. Of course, I’m talking about the cross of Jesus Christ. It was the Day of the Lord before the ultimate Day of the Lord.

It was a day where God confronted human evil, taking upon himself the worst the world could throw his way. It was a day when he liberated his people from oppression, this time from sin and wickedness within the human heart.

Friends, our only hope in the face of injustice, both those who have been victims of injustice and those who have been creators of it, for those who have been both the oppressed and the oppressor, is to put our faith and trust in the poor and innocent man from Nazareth, Jesus himself, and all he did for us on that Day of the Lord long ago.

In the end, here’s the beautiful reversal, when we see what Jesus has done for us on the cross, that through his death he has given us what we don’t deserve, a life and future that was bought at a price, we will then we motivated to give people what they too deserve – compassion, dignity, care, and justice.

Friends, may it be so.

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